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Ward Luthi: Julia, thank you for having me on your site.
Julia Valentine: The pleasure is mine. What was it like to serve on the President’s Commission on America’s Outdoors?
WL: Fascinating. I worked as an intern in Washington, D.C. for the U.S. Transportation Department, so I was not new to Washington. The Commission I served on was the second one of its kind. After the Second World War, Americans started to travel a lot, making a significant impact on our outdoor areas, such as national parks. Many Americans love the outdoors, it is a big part of our lives. We needed to look at what was happening, make some decisions and set the right policy. It was an opportunity to be connected with the White House, Senators and Congressmen. It was intellectually challenging, exciting and enjoyable.
JV: Did the idea of starting Walking the World originate there?
WL: It did. We were working 18 hours a day trapped in suits, and I wanted to go back to being outdoors. Also, top researchers in the U.S. worked on the commission. One of the major points that became clear from their research was that we were growing older as a nation, had money to spend, and wanted to do activities in the outdoors, particularly group activities. Being able to look at this research helped me decide that I wanted to do something in this area. I set up Walking the World based on what I learned while serving on the Commission.
JV: When we were creating the resource center for the Joy Compass website, we handpicked the best companies for the fifty and better audience. You are a part of this select group. What makes your company unique?
WL: When I started Walking the World in 1987, there were very few companies designed specifically for people who I call fifty and better. Elderhostel existed at the time, but they were designed as a facility based program, involving university learning. We were the first active outdoor program for the fifty and better
population. We design trips specifically for this group. We actively explore the outdoors.
The reason I went in that direction is that we grew up in outdoors in the course of evolution, and it is only recently in time that we began to live in cities and houses. We used to live outside, gathering around the campfire at night and walking, hunting, and fishing during the day. It is an important part of who we are as a people.
JV: I like it that you say fifty and better. What conclusions have you drawn from working with people on how we can be fifty and better, rather than fifty and declining?
WL: Some people assign, mentally and physiologically, certain things to certain ages. I am 59, and I noticed that society says, if you are 60, it must mean something. It generally means that you have retired, or you should retire. You should be quiet. You should not go outdoors. And that you are basically limited: physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, with relationships. There are limitations on what you can do.
I do not buy it. I do not want to limit myself because I have a certain number of years. There are 100 million people over the age of 50 in the United States alone. If we accept that it is true, that we are limited, then we just wipe out a huge segment of our population. When we get older, we have a better outlook on life, a better perspective. It is the time when we can take what we have learned and apply it, and actually live better. When I looked at your materials and read your Joy Compass summary e-book, it struck me that we have similar thoughts on this.
We used to think that when people reached 80, they could not gain muscle mass or strength. Then, they did a study at Harvard that proved that it is absolutely not true. While we may lose some quickness, we are able to gain muscle mass and strength.
Here are a few interesting Harvard studies on this topic for your reference.
Recently, I was driving and another car got too close, the driver got a little bit aggressive. The comment he made was, “Oh, it’s just an old man.” It’s a perception that if you are older, you’re “just” __________. We are doing ourselves a disservice by assigning people to an age, or to a perception of what that age means.
JV: I absolutely agree. My experience of life shows that life gets better as I figure out more things. A world-renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow showed that 50s and up are the best time of our life. That’s when we finally get our stuff together, and have an opportunity to realize our full potential and do some good in the world.
The perceptions you referred to earlier are hurtful and untrue. It is completely irrational to make youth the gold standard and assign all the good qualities to it, while assigning everything negative to old age. I agree with you that we’re doing ourselves a disservice thinking this way.
LW: I think one of the advantages of having a few more years is that when we are younger, we develop these perceptions of who we are, how the world is, and what is possible. Later, we begin to see through these earlier perceptions and the stereotypes that we apply to ourselves and begin to see that life is, pretty much, what we make it. We all set our limits too low. Outside of some realistic constraints, like not being able to breathe under water, we can do almost anything we decide we can do.
JV: It is also important to do the right things to enjoy ourselves at any age. What are the attitudes and beliefs that you have observed and liked?
WL: One of the things I have enjoyed working with the fifty and better population is that they are much more aware of life, much more open to many things. They see that everything is not black or white, and they allow themselves to do more things than ever before.
It used to be, if you were sixty, you could not climb a mountain, do a triathlon or sail around the world. But we can. The key, though, is to get out and do it. And this is where people get stuck. They understand conceptually that they can do it, but they do not know how to do it safely and successfully.
JV: An article on your website references the Nature Made Wellness Advisorsurvey reporting that 30 per cent of people described themselves as adventurous, but only when they were younger. You are quoted in the same article giving them some sound advice, prepare and experiment. Would you please expand on your reaction to the former adventurers.
WL: When you look at extreme adventure advertisements or reality shows, they feature young, what are perceived as more vibrant people, at least their bodies look that way. In reality, most of the viewers of these shows are 40-70 years old. They want, and can do these things, but they do not always know how to, because they have accepted it is outside their reach. So, there is not that much information or books for the 50-plus on how to go out and do it.
I set up my hikes to be a little more difficult than people anticipate. I assure them they can do it. They need the right equipment and some preparation. These things can be taught. The fifty-plus population is smart, astute and good at learning. At this point in our lives, we want the actual experience – see it, smell it, touch it.
There is all this talk that children are our future. They are certainly a part of it. But the fifty-plus population has a huge role in the world in general.
JV: I was always puzzled by “children are our future.” As far as I understand, my future is getting older. So, would it not be more realistic to say, ”seniors are my future?” You are paving the way, setting the expectation for what is possible.
What is adventure to you?
WL: That’s a big question. I am particularly oriented towards outdoors. Adventure could be anything. Reaching out past what you are used to. It is a challenge. Learning to fly a plane, water ski, use a computer. For me, outdoors is such a powerful place because you are going away from the distractions of the city and into the one-on-one relationship with nature. You are seeing these magnificent places, you are smelling the trees, the rain. Adventure is also dealing with other people or with yourself. Challenging yourself to do something you are not used to doing. There is a path that you follow, and any time you step off this path, you open yourself up for an adventure.
JV: You learn so much about yourself. My most grueling experience in adventure travel was a five-day hike to Machu Picchu. I had altitude sickness. In the first forty minutes, I realized that I could barely stand, let alone walk. It was such a huge wake up call to start working on my cardio fitness, that I came back and changed my entire lifestyle.
JV: I think we should all put ourselves in a situation where we look at our life in an entirely unexpected way and improve something. What kind of shape are you in?
WL: I am in a pretty good shape. Yesterday, I walked 8 miles. I walk, bicycle and hike all the time. I have stayed in a good shape, so I can do a lot of things. I do not recover as fast, and it is disappointing to me. I think it is important to stay healthy BOTH physically and mentally. It is hard to be mentally sharp when you are not physically fit.
JV: That’s the whole basis of psychosomatics: we are one being, and everything is interconnected. How do you choose your locations? You have fabulous locations: Costa Rica, New Zealand, Galapagos, Kenya, Italy…
WL: I look for places that people are interested in: in addition to the U.S., Europe and Central and South America are the top choices. Places that are beautiful, have good accommodations and enough trails to provide a variety of experiences. It has to be safe. I would like to visit Iraq and Iran because of their history, but they are not safe. I also select destinations because of their cultural impact.
JV: I understand you like to expose your travelers to the local life.
WL: Overall, yes. While some cities are too important to exclude because of their cultural aspect – Rome is a prime example - most of the time, we visit local places and communities to connect with people. Local communities are more open to having visitors. We get people to experience both the outdoors and the culture. If we just did the outdoors and didn’t meet the people, then we wouldn’t understand the local culture.
JV: What is the best compliment you were ever given by someone you took on a trip?
WL: That we have changed their lives by opening them up to the idea that they can do anything they want to do. Have you ever been to the National Park in Utah? One of the most magnificent places there is called the Delicate Arch (take a look at the Delicate Arch here). A lot of people are afraid to walk over the arch. They’re mentally not used to trusting their bodies, or moving through the outdoors safely. Once they make the transition from looking at the arch to actually walking safely on it, their lives change. Having people trust themselves – “Am I going to be safe? Can I do it?” – produces a mental shift. I am not a limited person, I can use my body in a different way, I can challenge myself, I can go to different places. People say, “you know, you opened me up to the fact I can do almost anything.”
JV: There are so many self-imposed limitations that we need to break through.
WL: I had a lady on my trip who had a tough time. At one point, she started crying while she was walking over a slanted area, saying, “I hate you, I hate you!” But she got across, and that night at the campfire, she said, “You’ve changed my life. I will now try other things.” Once people see the limits are not true, life opens up.
JV: I love your idea of 1Stove (here a link to the 1Stove project). It is such a fantastic idea.
WL: Thank you. We travel to Central and South America. We enjoy the hospitality of the local people. Then, we come back to America. We are blessed to live in this country. Many people in this world lack access to some of the basic amenities in life. More than half of the world’s population cooks on what is called a three stone fire (here is what this stove looks like) More than 1.5 million people die each year from smoke inhalation and burns. It causes deforestation, global warming. There are 100 million people over the age of 50. We literally could change the world in a year, significantly, if we wanted to. I don’t see the creative ideas, or the idea that we can do anything we want. We set a goal to go to the moon, and we did it. If we want to keep 1.5 million people from dying from smoke inhalation and burns caused by a three stone stove, we can. We could say, let’s give everyone in the world a stove. It costs $40. It changes the lives of one entire family for the rest of their lives.
Let’s replant the entire island of Haiti. If we wanted to do it, we could do it in a year. And I do not see it. I’m wondering, is it that we don’t believe we can do these things, or are we too busy with other concerns? My goal is to get 1 million people over the age of 50 to donate $10 a year, and we could change millions of people’s lives. We can do so much more. I would like to see a reality show where we can give a more efficient cooking stove to every family in the world that needs it.
JV: When I read about the $40 stove that will change a family’s life, my reaction was, you’ll never get a deal like that at Macy’s. You’ll never get a deal where you invest so little money for such a huge impact. You convinced me, I will sign up today.
I completely agree that we need creative ideas. I love it that what you are doing is so practical and so tangible. We think in terms of millions of dollars and huge causes. We tend to underestimate that small change is all there is. It is all we need to do. Buying one stove for one family.
WL: 1Stove is for the fifty and better population to show ourselves, America and the world that that we are a force, and we want to make life better for as many people as we can. 100 million people, giving a dollar, equals $100M that can change lives. I want to have t-shirts and reality shows with people fifty and better going out and changing the world. I want to see the fifty-plus population to stand up and say, here’s what we’re doing.
JV: That would be my dream come true. Especially in America, the desire to leave our country better than when we found it has always been strong. You capture this spirit. We have the resources. We just need the leadership, people like you. Maybe we need a good idea list. Starting with 1Stove, other people can come up with good, practical ideas and add to it. I really hope you do the reality show, write a book, scream from the mountaintop about it.
WL: You brought up a few good points. It would be good to have a “better idea” list. We need people like you and I to get the word out. Sometimes, people are afraid to act because is all seems too much. I would like to change lives in a positive way.
JV: Ward, thank you so much for a terrific interview. You leave me inspired. The list will happen.
WL: It starts tomorrow.
JV: I love it when people come up with ideas that are creative and practical. Removing the illusion that something huge needs to happen, and someone else needs to do it. In the meantime, 1.5 million people a year die while we are sitting around and our lives are boring. I feel the situation needs to change. It is for the benefit for every generation.
WL: Everyone needs to participate. You made a good point that we all wait for someone else to do it. We all need to step up. Let’s actually take action. Whatever it is you need – fitness, relationships, helping bring about social change - take that first step.